How Netflix’s ‘Spiderhead’ is different from the short story “Escape from Spiderhead”

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As the credits of Netflix’s sci-fi thriller Spiderhead tell us, this movie is based on the George Saunders short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” originally published in The New Yorker. And while the movie borrows the story’s basic plot — inmates in a high-tech prison volunteer as subjects for emotion-altering drug tests — the final result is a very, very loose adaptation.

Some things stay the same. Both the movie and the short story play with a darkly comedic tone. Our two leads remain inmate Jeff (Miles Teller) and the scientist supervising the experiment, Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). Others, however, are entirely different. These range from the small (like Abnesti’s first name being Steve instead of Ray, for some reason) to the wildly large (the entire third act).

Here are all the biggest ways Spiderhead is different from “Escape from Spiderhead.”

Beware: the following contains massive spoilers for both the movie and the short story. Acknowledge, then read on.

What is “Spiderhead” anyway?

A small white seaplane lands in the ocean near a brutalist building on a tropical island.

On our way to Spiderhead.
Credit: Netflix

Right off the bat, the short story and movie have different versions of what “Spiderhead” means. In the movie, Spiderhead is the name of the penitentiary/research facility where Abnesti’s experiments take place. It’s on a beautiful tropical island, far from civilization.

“Escape from Spiderhead” gives us precious few details about the prison, and that includes the name. Instead, the inmates and Abnesti call the control room of the prison the Spiderhead, due to the various workrooms that jut out from it like spider legs. It’s also implied that this prison is one branch of several that are working on similar experiments. And it’s located in not-so-tropical Utica, New York.

These changes, while small, make sense from an aesthetic viewpoint: Spiderhead is a cool name, use it! And if you’ve got the budget to go somewhere tropical, where you can shoot boat chases and plane crashes, I guess you should use that too.

Why is Jeff in prison in Spiderhead?

The reason for Jeff’s imprisonment in Spiderhead is radically different from his crime in “Escape from Spiderhead.” The movie establishes that Jeff is at Spiderhead for two counts of involuntary manslaughter: He drove drunk and crashed a car, killing both passengers, including his girlfriend Emma (BeBe Bettencourt).

She and Jeff’s plaintive phone calls to her are movie-only additions. Perhaps they’re meant to add an extra layer of guilt and regret to his character, because in “Escape from Spiderhead,” Jeff full-on murders someone.

He’s 19, drunk, and fighting someone much smaller than him. Realizing he’s losing, he hits his opponent with a brick. Jeff can’t fully explain why he did it, but he knows he regrets it.

The darkness of Jeff’s wrathful homicide interests me a lot more than what we get in Spiderhead. In Spiderhead, the manslaughter and involvement of his girlfriend shows the film is trying hard to make Jeff a sympathetic, tragic hero. There’s room for that in the original too, especially as Jeff reckons with the possibility that he may become responsible for more people’s deaths (more on that later).

Spiderhead gives a ton more Abnesti (so a ton more Chris Hemsworth)

A man in a suit and glasses stands in a room with a spiral staircase.

This guy is bad news, but he’s fun to watch.
Credit: Netflix

Since Saunders narrates “Escape from Spiderhead” entirely from Jeff’s point of view, we never see Abnesti beyond his instructions. He doesn’t interact with the inmates, and he certainly doesn’t wear his own MobiPak, the device that doles out mood-altering chemicals at the touch of a button. But if you have Chris Hemsworth, you’d better make the most of him. Spiderhead certainly does, beefing up his role.

My favorite element of this addition (besides Hemsworth’s funky dance) is the fact that we get to witness how much of a fanatic Abnesti is. He’s still as manipulative and smarmy as he is in the story, but now we get to see just how much he believes in his work. Is his backstory about being abandoned by his father a bit tired? Sure. Is it interesting to watch him inject himself with his own compounds and commit himself so wholly to a terrifying cause? Absolutely.

Lizzy, welcome to Spiderhead

Joining Emma in the new character club is Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). She’s basically just in the movie so that Jeff can have a love interest. Sadly, the movie underuses Smollett to its own detriment.

A huge part of “Escape from Spiderhead” is that Jeff doesn’t have feelings for any other inmates in the prison. That includes the two women he has sex with, Heather and Rachel (called “Sarah” in Spiderhead). Even though he doesn’t love them, Jeff doesn’t want to dose either of them with Darkenfloxx, a drug that causes extreme mental and physical pain. Jeff doesn’t want anyone to experience that. But after seeing Heather die by suicide to escape the drug’s effects, he absolutely doesn’t want Rachel to get dosed.

In the movie, Jeff’s breaking point is over his beloved Lizzy being threatened with a Darkenfloxx dose. Adding a love interest like Lizzy may raise the stakes of the film’s third act. But the dilemma of dosing anyone with a killer drug is heavy enough in itself. A clumsily paced love story doesn’t add too much more.

Spiderhead‘s O-B-D-X plot twist is a new invention, sort of

A man and a woman sit at a table, holding hands.

Lizzy and Jeff bond in prison.
Credit: Netflix

The main experiment in “Escape from Spiderhead” focuses on causing and then erasing feelings of love, but Spiderhead says, “scratch that, it’s all about free will, baby!” Turns out, movie Abnesti’s true purpose is trying to perfect the drug known as “B-6” or “O-B-D-X,” which would cause complete obedience. (He’s also trying to fill out a bingo card of drugs. That’s all movie-only stuff.)

The O-B-D-X change is interesting because there’s already a drug that induces obedience in “Escape from Spiderhead.” It’s called Docilryde, and Abnesti wants to use it to get Jeff to comply to inject Darkenfloxx into Rachel.

Spiderhead screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick probably got the idea for O-B-D-X — and Abnesti’s new motivations — from Docilryde, which though it sounds very sinister is never actually injected in the short story. However, the side effect to its inclusion in the movie is a completely different ending from Saunders’s story.

The ending of Spiderhead vs. the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead”

Congratulations to Jeff from Spiderhead for surviving, because Jeff from “Escape from Spiderhead” does not.

About to be forced to Darkenfloxx Rachel, Jeff administers the drug on himself and dies by suicide. As he dies, a voice tells him he could return to life, but he chooses not to. He hasn’t killed Rachel, and will never kill again.

It’s a pretty bleak ending compared to Spiderhead‘s action-packed finale, which includes Jeff drugging Abnesti (new), Jeff and Lizzy escaping the island by boat (also new), and Abnesti dying in an explosive, drug-fueled plane crash (definitely new).

I get it: Adapting a short story into a movie brings with it the urge to create a high-spectacle bonanza. However, the twists and turns in Spiderhead‘s third act feel stale and cartoonish when compared to the creeping dread of Saunders’s ending. There, we realize that Jeff’s “escape” is actually death. Here, we realize that Jeff has pulled a predictable double-cross and that the authorities are coming to save the day. It just doesn’t have the same impact, nor is it particularly interesting.

Final verdict

A bald, tattooed man reads a book of short stories by George Saunders.

Hey, look, he’s reading a collection of George Saunders stories!
Credit: Netflix

To its credit, Spiderhead works hard to capture the dark comedy of Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead,” and the experiment scenes all play out fairly close to the scenes in the short story. However, when the film expands outside the experimental framework, it runs into some issues. Some expansions, such as more Abnesti, work in the film’s favor. Others, like Lizzy, Jeff’s past, and the entire ending, fall flat due to clichés and rushed pacing.

It all comes down to the potential of “Escape from Spiderhead” vs. the final product that is Netflix’s mediocre Spiderhead. Saunders’s short story had the potential to be a contained, introspective sci-fi chamber piece in the vein of Ex Machina. However, Spiderhead is torn between being such subtle sci-fi and between being a big, action blockbuster — which bristles against the source material.

In the end, neither version of the movie comes together, resulting in a fairly lackluster adaptation. Perhaps you’d enjoy it more if you were dosed with Laffodil. Who’s to say?

Spiderhead(opens in a new tab) is now streaming on Netflix(opens in a new tab).





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